at the Pasadena Playhouse
Valerie Harper is a mistress of vocal transformations—and a fine actor. In Matthew Lombardo's play, she portrays stage and screen legend Tallulah Bankhead. The play is a re-creation of eight distrait hours in Tallulah's troubled life, where she spars with sound editor Danny Miller (Chad Allen) over a one-sentence loop—that should have taken five minutes—for what was to be her final role in Die! Die! My Darling!.
Tallulah was a spoiled beauty in her youth, a star of stage and screen, as talented as she was notorious, a woman with a stevedore's vocabulary and a propensity for living her life out loud and sans underwear, with little regard for propriety or society's rules, embracing every addiction that came her way.
The aging Tallulah's fiercely funny bout with the uptight Danny is scarcely the clash of Titans, but despite their obvious differences, their realization of their similarities finally surfaces after an overlong, suddenly sober burst of unlikely psychobabble instigated by Miss B., which puts the star in backup position to the secondary character, an odd decision of dramaturgy.
Harper, in a physically superb performance, looks, moves, and often sounds more like Tallulah than Tallulah, almost to the one-note point of grating on the nerves, but Harper assures us of her ample talent with a superb rendition of Blanche DuBois from an after-the-fact production of Streetcar at the Coconut Grove Playhouse that promised the audience Tallulah at her campiest but delivered an unexpectedly moving performance that was heartbreakingly shouted down by her followers.
Frequent profane quotes of the actress mean this production isn't for the kiddies, but they add to the authenticity of the portrait. Director Rob Ruggiero keeps potential scenery-chewing at bay. Michael Karl Orenstein is the scarcely seen, mostly unheard soundman in the booth. Adrian W. Jones' practical set, Michael Gilliam's lighting, and Michael Hooker's sound are simple but impeccable.
Presented by and at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 4 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. (Also Wed. 3 p.m. Jul. 23. Dark Wed. 7 p.m. Jul. 16 & 23.) Jul. 8-Aug. 3. (626) 356-7529. www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.
Reviewed by Madeleine Shaner